Summer is officially here, and I am ready to heat up your LIFE with this week’s recommendation. You guessed it: IT’S A ROMANCE. Let’s be real, Voicefull could be entirely dedicated to romance. It is the most progressive genre out there right now, and the women of color who write in this genre care deeply about creating inclusive and empowering stories. In a world that consistently undervalues individuals who do not match the stereotypical Western ideal of white, thin, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, and neurotypical, being able to escape into the worlds created by Rai, Cole, Dev, and more is a genuine godsend.
Helen Hoang’s debut novel The Kiss Quotient is a beautiful addition to a genre that has changed my life for the better. Hoang has been vocal about living with autism as an adult, and her female protagonist Stella Lane shares the condition. When an obnoxious coworker suggests that she get some practice in the bedroom to improve her prospects with men, Stella decides that sex must be yet another “interpersonal thing…to exert extra efforts on” and hires a professional to teach her. What follows between her and her hired escort Michael Phan is a delightfully sensitive story about how despite our differences, there’s no language more universal than the language of love.
Pleasure is Not A Monolith
Something I’ve learned over the past several years through reading, conversations with trusted friends, and my own experience, is that we bring our entire life with us into the bedroom. Sex isn’t just sexual. It’s not merely some physical high that we can separate from the daily stress and situations we experience with our clothes on. We bring in societal expectations and assumptions and what our friends say and what our parents think – all of it enters the bedroom with us, at least on a subconscious level. Sex educator Emily Nagoski talks about this extensively in her groundbreaking book Come As You Are, in which she breaks down the brain science behind how sex is deeply contextual for women, and how what women feel about sex will determine their sexual lives.
Stella and Michael’s relationship is founded on this contextual premise. During their first sexual encounter, Michael realizes Stella’s discomfort has more to do with other partners not understanding what she needs to get turned on rather than any deficiency on her part. Their individual beliefs about sex are also extremely different. Stella views sex as a fixed, mechanical process that she has to endure, whereas Michael understands that emotions, physical clothing, foreplay, previous sexual encounters, and literally everything impact someone’s comfort. He works with her while he falls for her, and encourages her to be open and communicative about what satisfies her and what doesn’t.
Hoang could have chosen any genre through which to tell this story, but the romance genre is particularly appropriate because these kinds of conversations are already ubiquitous. Every romance novel involves protagonists who pursue their particular variety of pleasure, within their very particular context. We as a society have a lot to unlearn when it comes to understanding ourselves, sex, and the way we find pleasure. Thankfully, The Kiss Quotient models the tools and conversations we can all modify to make our individual lives happier and a whole lot sexier.
Different People, Same Blueprint
While we all bring our particular preferences and life contexts to the bedroom, this novel is a beautiful reminder that the similarities that unite us far outweigh the differences that separate us. Hoang accomplishes this primarily through having both of her characters succumb not only to the power of sensory feeling, but also to the pervasiveness of human insecurity. The romance genre usually takes you into the minds of both of the protagonists, so you’re able to read how each character perceives the other, as well as enter the interior worlds of both. In The Kiss Quotient, Hoang utilizes this genre-specific quirk to link her two protagonists.
We’re able to experience how Stella reacts to certain social situations with more difficulty than Michael does, thanks to Hoang’s thorough and vivid writing of Stella’s mental processing, but we’re also able to read just how much Stella and Michael have in common as well. They’re both held back by insecurities – Stella believes she’s unlovable because of her Asperger’s, and Michael is convinced that his personal history makes him unworthy. Vulnerability connects Michael and Stella in this novel, and they each learn by the end that despite all of their differences, they’re still two human beings in love. Stella puts it best, with this image near the end of the novel: “The sight of their intertwined hands pleased her. So different, but still five fingers and five knuckles, the same general blueprint…Palm to palm, two lonely halves found comfort in together.”
I’m thrilled to add The Kiss Quotient to my overflowing, never-satiated romance collection. In our sex-negative, emotion-averse world, Helen Hoang tells a story of two people who deeply deserve happiness and love, and reminds us all to pursue the same worthwhile goals in our own lives.
Note: I am not a medical expert, but I’ve tried to use the correct and appropriate language regarding Stella’s mental health. Asperger’s syndrome is no longer considered a medical diagnosis on its own, and I relied on Hoang’s use of “autism” and “Asperger’s” in the novel while writing this recommendation.
Book photo by Tulip Majumdar